Legends of Aria is an MMORPG that works hard to capture what made some of the earliest MMORPG’s unique. If you’re as old as I am you remember those early days when the term MMORPG was practically unheard of. It carried no real expectations as it was literally a new genre for gamers to explore. The earliest iterations of the genre relied heavily on players creating their own story, their own character arc and gave them the freedom to make the world whatever they wanted it to be. It was, if I may borrow the tired phrase, the wild west of gaming. Other than the basic rules, players were free to make of it whatever they wanted. Many long for those days of old, their tales of great feats and chance encounters growing granter with each passing year.
Others, in this case, the good folks at Citadel Studios, have set out to pay tribute to classics like Ultima Online and RuneScape (before Jagex gave us wonderful new visuals and quality of life changes). Their offering, Legends of Aria (LOA), feels like an attempt to capture some of the things that made those early days great while infusing it with some modern features that we have learned to love today. After two weeks of adventuring through the land of Celador, I’ve stabled my horse and taken to my keyboard to share my experience. So grab that coffee, kick back and enjoy this review of Legends of Aria.
Capturing the Nostalgic Heart
Set in the high fantasy world of Celador, LOA drops players in the middle of a bustling world with a little backstory and even less direction. This may seem like a critique at first glance. However, in an age of theme parks and linear progression, Legends offers a call back to the adventure of the unknown. Set in one of the starting areas based on your limited character creations options (more on that later), you awake to find yourself free to pursue any life you would like. A brief tutorial does offer some early coaching to nudge you along, but you’ll quickly find yourself on your own. I personally enjoyed being shown little and left to my own devices but if you’re someone who welcomes a little hand holding it can be a bit jarring.
This sandbox, no signpost approach carries with it some pros and cons. On the plus side, it felt great to have to actually explore to figure out how to do things like craft, bandage and even engage in combat effectively. It has been a long time since I’ve had to research basic things like levelling, progression and crafting. I found myself more than once watching a youtube tutorial on one screen while chatting with players in-game just to get a basic handle on game mechanics.
On that note, this approach also helps create a pretty active and engaged community. Despite everything being new and fresh, players were quick to come alongside and help in-game. Some of the mechanics, for example, the vitality boost, rely on you engaging with players. In the aforementioned example, I had to seek out Bards any time my Vitality boost wore off, convince them to play me a song and then make sure to toss a coin to my witcher Bard when my buff was maxed out. It’s a small example of an intentional design choice that brings players together. Social mechanics like guilds and even player crafting become a much more communal and important aspect of your experience.
Citadel Studios has gone even further to promote community with its player housing and player-driven economy. The former allows players to place a house pretty much anywhere in the world. If there is a free space, you can drop a claim and begin the process of building your dream home.
Player housing not only offers characters a place to rest their head after a day of adventuring but also doubles a place to set up shop. Going into town, you can hire a merchant that will hang around your house and peddle your wares, both crafted and looted to anyone passing by. This creates some pretty organic trade routes for players to travel and is further bolstered by the Bazaar located in every hub area. This interconnected ‘shop’ allows players to display their wares for others to purchase. It’s just one more way to help foster the online community that surrounds Aria.
The flip side of the sandbox, no signpost approach is that it can feel very overwhelming for new players. Arguably to the point that it could be a turn off if you are new to this approach. Honestly, as someone who cut his teeth on World of Warcraft, this was a pretty big adjustment for me. My concern here is that the very mechanics that are designed to help you lean on other players and form a community will unintentionally turn people off to the game. It’s a delicate balancing act and I’m interested to see how Citadel Studios handles it moving forward.
Tell Me A Story
In regards to narrative in Legends of Aria, once again Citadel is opting for the sandbox, no signpost approach. Although the regions themselves hint at backstory, at least in my playthrough, the real story is the one the player chooses to create. This is the attraction to a title like LOA; the freedom to create your own narrative. Your character, motivations and goals are yours to determine. It is definitely a break from the MMO tradition of the last 10 years but one that resonates well with some of the earliest MMO’s.
During my time with LOA I managed to explore several of the world's regions. It was great to see a wide range of landscapes as I traversed the world. Each region has its own distinct look and feel. Each offers new and interesting enemies and wildlife to explore. It’s one of the things I appreciated most about the various regions in Celador. In fact, even though I was a bit under leveled in my combat skill, I did spend some time in the Frozen Tundra, Legends newest region. As with the other regions it felt unique and distinct. The Tundra carried with it an atmosphere of despair and dread that made traversing it that much more engaging and kept me on edge.
In addition to the overworld, Aria has various dungeons to explore and loot. I was able to get a few groups together fairly easily on the official servers and we spent much of our time navigating the Halls of Corruption. This is one of LOA’s mid range dungeons and offered a much more focused and challenging experience for my party. Although there were some unique enemies to engage combat unfortunately felt flat and lacked real strategic engagement (more on this later). However grouping up did make the time spent there fun and much easier than attempting it solo; a feat I tried more than once.
Speaking of grouping, the official server seemed to be fairly well populated during my playthrough with many people eager to jump into content when I inquired in chat. Much like WOW of old, ‘looking for group’ was an excellent way to connect with the community. The regional towns and cities bustled with players running around, managing crafting, selling wares or preparing for their next adventure.
As noted LOA is all about player choice. This all starts with the character creator. In this case, it was a bit of an underwhelming and confusing experience. To begin with, the character creator offers little by way of customization. For a game that boasts player freedom and the importance of choice, it was a bit of a letdown. Aside from cosmetic customization, players are offered a few different starting paths to choose from. The struggle here is that there is little by way of direction as to how to use the system. This is further exacerbated by the fact that doing it wrong really leaves you at a disadvantage starting out.
During my playthrough, I found that those initial creation choices really didn’t help me much as I entered into the world. Thankfully after that initial set up I quickly discovered that every action I take, from chopping trees to engaging enemies, impacts the development of my character. In many cases actions actually have compounded results. In the case of chopping trees, I slowly began to build up stat points in strength which was a boost to my combat skills.
This is where LOA really shines. Every choice and subsequent action has weight and meaning. Progression isn’t measured by player level but rather player abilities. You won’t see level 60 players running around Celador. Instead, you’ll find master archers, expert alchemists and shrewd merchants. The game intentionally limits how many points you can allocate to the dozens of different character paths forcing you to focus on mastering a few. Thankfully abilities can be locked down or even downgraded so as to allow you to level others. It all harkens back to a core design philosophy; the freedom to choose.
I Fired an Arrow, I Fired an Arrow Again
The one caveat to a system where every action develops skill is that every action is needed to develop a skill. As a result Legends of Aria is all about the grind. In fact, much of my 30 plus hours in-game have been spent grinding points in combat and crafting so I could effectively explore dungeons. Don’t get me wrong, it is quite relaxing to put on some Jazz or binge Netflix while monitoring my character’s tree chopping but it’s not for everyone. It’s the nature of an old school sandbox experience.
This is one of the struggles I’ve had with LOA. I understand grind, I’ve been playing Diablo 3 for 21 seasons now and don’t even get me started on Path of Exile. However, what makes the grind in D3 or POE bearable is that at their core they’re a fun experience. Combat is fast, there’s a lot going on all at once and there is so much shiny loot to collect. Its a pretty simple formula but it works. Legends of Aria struggles a bit here.
The core combat experience isn’t really that engaging. Combat is slow, arduous and has to be repeated countless times to progress. I understand that once again, Aria is a callback to old school systems, but in the case of combat, it’s one system that definitely could have been modernized. Overall the grind is a pretty tedious process but it does also carry with it an investment in your character that I haven’t experienced in a long time.
If I’m being honest, I’m a pretty intense ‘Altoholic’. You should see how many Alts I have in WOW, Guild Wars 2 or pretty much any MMO I play on the regular. In LOA, however, I’ve found myself seriously invested in building up and maintaining my main (and only) character. Each time I log in I immediately find myself checking stats to see how I should best utilize my playtime to further develop my character. I’ve found it quite refreshing actually, as my typical MMO experience is to queue up for whatever Dungeon is at my level and mindlessly grind my way to the max level.
Free To Play Your Way
Legends of Aria is technically a free-to-play title. You can jump in, create a character and play to your heart’s content. In fact, when I first received word that I would be covering LOA, I jumped in a purely free to play account so I could spend some time seeing what the experience was like without any premium features. After about 6 hours of play, I have to say that you could play LOA without ever investing a cent. The core feature set if robust and offers countless hours of gameplay.
Aria does offer some premium subs options that give you some quality of life improvements; extra housing slot, weekly gems (for the store), extra character slot, etc. but aren’t necessary to enjoy the game. Additionally, the in-game store offers a host of cosmetic items to help bolster the aforementioned lacking character creator. Finally, through Steam, you can purchase an assortment of packs that further enhance how quickly you can develop your character or in a few cases extra skills to level. All of these options seem to simply reinforce the design philosophy of choice.
Additionally, one other interesting feature of LOA is the player-run servers. Premium players have the option of creating their own custom servers for others to join in on. These community servers can have custom rule sets such as increased point caps and larger inventory carrying capacity. It’s a fun way to give players even more freedom and once again help foster community.
Having officially released under a month ago, LOA is still experiencing some growing pains in the form of bugs and glitches. Some assets can be slow to load on occasion and more than once animations don’t properly execute. Thankfully during my playthrough, there were only a couple of times where a glitch became a frustrating issue. Generally a quick reload of the client resolved the issue.
Legends of Aria is a tribute to some of the earliest MMORPG’s that helped define the genre that it resides in. It’s not afraid to lean into things like the grind or less than linear progression systems. This design choice leaves Aria attempting to maintain a pretty delicate balance. On the one hand, it gives players an opportunity to (re)discover what made some of the earliest MMORPG’s great. On the other hand, it can be a deterrent for players wanting to try this style of MMO out for the first time.
As someone who tends to lean more towards that narrative, focused leveling experience I’ve struggled some in the world of Celador. My frustration with Sandbox or even open world approaches to game design is that it's too easy to get distracted and lost in the possibilities. What some see as an opportunity to flourish without the confines of focused, forced leveling, I find daunting and overwhelming. In the case of LOA, it veers so heavily into the former that it takes some of the fun out of playing for me personally.
At the very least, Legends of Aria is a chance to experience some of what made MMORPG’s great in the early days.